KENNEDY’S COMMANDO

The lanky volunteer swapping banter with patients at the Wangaratta Hospital, remains anonymous to all but the most perceptive football person.

As a retired male nurse  of 36 years standing,  he’s seen first-hand the fillip that a caring visitor can bring to someone who’s been consigned to bed for a week or more. Even a ‘hello’ can bring a broad smile to their face and brighten their day.

Nowadays he comes across as a soft-hearted, kindly soul – a far cry from the flint-hard key defender, who played an important role in one of the toughest of all VFL/AFL Grand Finals.

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Norm Bussell didn’t play a game of football until he was 14. Not because he didn’t want to, mind you. It’s just that his arm was broken so badly at the age of nine that he couldn’t straighten it fully for many years.

Instead, his dad, who was the resident Lands Department dingo-trapper in Whitfield, would take him out at week-ends to help trap and shoot the pests, which would prey on local livestock.

The Bussell home backed onto the King Valley Oval and Norm spent many hours honing his football skills, soon winning himself a spot in the ‘Roos’ senior side and an invitation from the Wang.Rovers to play three games on permit towards the end of 1961. He was just 16.

The next season he became a regular with the Hawks and relished playing under Bob Rose, soaking up the wisdom of the great man. Rose, for his part, rated the lightly-framed, athletic 193cm Bussell highly.

When he took on the coaching job at Collingwood two years later, he immediately lured Norm down to Victoria Park for the practice matches and Magpie officials coaxed him into signing a Form Four, binding him to the club for an indefinite period.

But he never did take that next step.

He had just started an Auto-Electrical apprenticeship in Wangaratta and was happy at the Rovers. Besides, he was loving his footy, playing at centre half back and thriving in a close-knit group that gelled superbly, as the charismatic Ken Boyd extracted the best out of them.

The Rovers won back-to-back premierships in 1964 and ’65 and played in another Grand Final, which they lost to Wodonga, in 1967. Norm had won the club’s Best & Fairest and represented the League during the season and when Hawthorn secretary Ron Cook came knocking one Saturday morning, he was interested in what he had to say.

What perfect timing ! Collingwood’s Form Four had expired the previous night and the VFL’s Zoning scheme was due to kick-in on the following Monday. This meant that Norm would have become automatically tied to North Melbourne.

“I liked the way Ron Cook went about things. I signed with Hawthorn and decided to go straight away. I never regretted that decision”, he said.

Without playing a Reserves game, he went straight into the senior side for the first game of 1968. And he became a fervent disciple of the coaching methods of John Kennedy.

“The conditioning at Hawthorn made the players so much more physically strong than our opponents and John built an entire game plan around this ascendency. It was a real family club. They were champion blokes and it was a privilege to be involved “, he recalled.

He thrived on what his team-mate Don Scott described “the spirit of Hawthorn”.

“It came from the players staying together away from the ground. there was no need for the administration, the coach, or anyone else, to re-in force any kind of discipline. We had our own code of ethics and it worked, ” Scott once said.

Norm forged friendships with the ‘Hawthorn family’ that have lasted to this day.

Whilst never a glamour player, his ability to do the job in defence enabled him to make a name for himself and he was to play 114 senior games with Hawthorn over six years. The highlight was undoubtedly the 1971 premiership.

Hawthorn were dealt a hefty blow in the second semi-final when champion centre half back Peter Knights tore ligaments and was ruled out for the Grand Final. It meant that they were forced to move Bussell across from the flank to the key defence post. He played a significant role in the triumph over St.Kilda, in a rough-and-tumble decider, ever-remembered for its brutality.

It’s interesting, in this current era of exorbitant player contracts, which can sometiimes be upwards of half a million dollars a year, that the players in Bussell’s era were earning around $20 per game, with an extra $10 salted away in their Provident Fund.

A back injury shortened Norm’s League career and he returned to the Rovers in 1974, accepting the appointment as assistant-coach to Neville Hogan, with whom he had shared a flag ten years earlier.

The family settled on a small farm at Whorouly and he enjoyed his footy. “I was very happy to be home. There was never any question about coming back to the club which had given me my original opportunity. But out on the ground it wasn’t easy. I was a bit of a marked man and some of the young blokes wanted to knock my block off”, he said.

Injury problems confined him to just 10 games in 1974, but he played a starring role in the premiership win. He had a stellar year in ’75, winning his second Best & Fairest and helping in another flag win. His toughness added a touch of steel to a talented line-up.

The last of his 143 games with the Rovers came early in 1976, as he succumbed to his ‘dicky’ knee and aching back.

He retired to his farm and commenced a mature-aged nursing degree. The inevitable visit came from his local club, Whorouly, who asked him to take over the coaching position. Successive premierships in 1977 and ’78 were sparked by his aggressive on-field leadership. There was little doubt that his players would ‘go through a brick wall’ for him.

At one stage they had chalked up 29 wins in a row. The winning margin in the 1978 decider against Beechworth was a whopping 119 points.

Myrtleford approached him in 1985 and he spent one, largely unsuccessful year as non-playing coach of a side that had suffered from mass departures during the off-season.

That was the final curtain-call for his active footy career, although he was a proud onlooker as his son Aidan helped the Rovers to the 1993 flag in a 44-game playing stint during the 90’s.

The once-laconic youngster, who had become a proud member  of ‘Kennedy’s Commandoes’, left a strong imprint on the football scene and is a member of both the Ovens & King and Wangaratta Rovers’ Halls of Fame.
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